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Making The Heartland A Bio-Oil Center Without Starving Ourselves In The Process

A new process for converting plants to oil can use plants that we don't also want for food, opening up new possibilities for a future where the fields with amber waves are what power our cars.

When Texas prospectors first hit oil gushers atop Spindletop Hill in 1901, it seemed like the Oil Age would go on forever. Today, researchers are looking hard for alternatives to replace oil after world production peaks and then goes into permanent decline — something that may have already begun in 2006 according to the International Energy Agency.

In a world with less oil, crop silos may replace oil derricks as the iconic symbol for next generation of fuel. The dream of biofuels has been around for some time, but has failed to catch on. Experiments with a new process for making plant-based fuels may lead to new developments.

This process, called pyrolysis, is different from first-generation biofuel production that refines crops, often oil or sugar rich-plants. These plants also make up much of our food or livestock forage supply, creating a tension between feeding ourselves or supplying the biofuel industry. Instead, pyrolysis can create fuel from "lignocellulosic" feedstocks such as switchgrass or trees—basically woody materials—which are turned into oil by being heated in an oxygen-free environment. That also creates syngas (which can be used to power bio-refineries) and charred biomass, also known as biochar, which can be spread on the fields to grow the next crops destined for the bio-oil plant—a complete loop.

"We’re looking at this from a whole system approach," said SDSU professor Tom Schumacher, the project director, in a statement. Now the researchers say they need to figure out how to fine-tune the chemical refining process and the effects of different feedstocks on the final products.

But to make it truly sustainable, they will also need to figure out a way to grow all that biomass—think many square miles for a single plant—without displacing food crops and communities. While pyrolysis means we're not turning our food into oil, we still need to grow those oil-making plants somewhere where they're not competing with what we eat.

[Image: Flickr user Thing Three]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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